Of Routes and Boots

Tony Northan

Army cuts and a cover-up

Sometime during my National Service with the Signals at Catterick between 1956-58 an official VIP visit to the camp took place but I can't for the life of me remember who it was that honoured us with their presence. Judging by the elaborate nature and extent of the preparations it was definitely one of the royals.

To ensure that all was ship-shape and Catterick fashion for the prestigious cavalcade's drive through the few miles of Yorkshire countryside from point of arrival to camp venue the army got up to one of its usual farcical practices by trying to improve the country scene along the way so that the eyes of the exalted one would not alight on anything remotely offensive.

The route must have been pre-inspected by a Committee, no doubt consisting of a mixture of pips, crowns and a red band or two, which in its military wisdom decided that the disorderly nature of the ranks of roadside trees and vegetation was a disgrace to the army and could not be tolerated. The Committee acknowledged however that the untidy greenery could not straighten its dressing unaided and therefore arranged for it to be done on its behalf.

A gang of suitably equipped army personnel was duly despatched charged with the task of removing from the offending trees and hedges any branches that failed to meet a pre-defined specification no doubt set by the Committee. Inevitably, after the saws had dismembered the unwanted rustic limbs - an act which would today be regarded as wanton vandalism - there remained in their place unsightly rings of white tree-trunk which stood out like a sore thumb against the surrounding bark thereby degrading the route instead of improving it.

The Committee's solution, probably arrived at with a Eureka moment worthy of Archimedes himself, was fiendishly clever and would ensure that nobody, most especially the VIP, would be any the wiser. The attempt to restore nature to 'normal' was achieved by daubing every sawn white patch for miles along the route with a coating of bottle-green paint! Those who surveyed the scene afterwards said the first thing they noticed was the extraordinary sight of dabs of green paint adorning trees for as far as the eye could see.

A finishing touch to the further detriment of the pastoral scene was achieved with the usual practice of lining the route with bodies - for every mile in this case! Practically everyone in uniform in the district who was alive or at least capable of standing in one spot for about six hours without taking root, was rounded-up and marched off for the purpose... I ought to know - I was one of 'em! We were abandoned in what felt like the middle of nowhere, stood at ease for hours on end, were cold, tired and hungry... and I still can't bloody-well remember for whom I suffered it all!

Recruits-in-Boots on ice

Every fortnight - in the mid-fifties at least - we instructors in 2nd. Training Regiment's Le Cateau lines at Catterick received a new intake of National Service NIGS (New Intake Group) for eight weeks' trade training. The army had given birth to them four weeks' earlier and after they'd spent that month in basic training we got to adopt these 'newbies' who'd hardly had time to come to terms with their uncomfortable army-issue uniform, its accessories and its upkeep.

It was the hobnailed boots that seemed to irk them most. The tender feet of many of these Mother's sons had probably never seen the inside of such clumsy and unfashionable footwear whereas I'd kept company with a pair throughout my schooldays and was therefore on intimate terms with the heavy-footed style thus had no trouble coping with army issue. Much to their surprise the NIGs found that when booted-up although it took a bit more oomph to put one leg in front of the other, they didn't have to re-learn to walk as they'd probably feared as the action required was much the same as when wearing their favourite civvy-street slip-ons or brothel creepers. This led them to think they'd got it sussed but those who were with us in 2TR when a Catterick winter struck soon learned otherwise.

What the 'tenderfeet' were unaware of was that ice and hobnails didn't mix. Overnight the Great God Winter could turn camp roads and footpaths into potentially lethal ice rinks on which we expected our unwary trainees to form three ranks ready for the morning march to the Training Spider. We in charge knew that what was coming was a sight not to be missed.

Emerging from their barrack rooms realisation began to dawn for our squaddies when their eyes spotted the potential problem staring them in the face. They nervously tippy-toed ever-so-gently across the icy pavement to launch themselves upon the main arena that was the road. This was when the agony started for them and the fun for us.

We attempted to ready them for moving-off with a preparatory, 'SQUAAAAD!', but staring eyes were now transfixed upon the lethal surface below and unable to help themselves they would totter and turn against their will on legs straight-locked by fright whilst upper limbs flailed wildly in all directions as if in spasm. As they slipped, skidded, fell and recovered, the bawled commands of we in charge to, 'GEDDA GRIP!' didn't fall on deaf ears. They wanted to... oh how they wanted to but ice, boots, legs and unbalance all conspired to keep them in a state of perpetual motion. Bent forward from the waist with arms outstretched and pawing air a suffering soul would grab another and, clutched in an embrace for survival's sake, the pair performed a pas-de-deux that would have done credit to a performance of Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker'!

Having watched this pantomime for long enough we frost-bitten 'old timers' decided it was time to put a stop to it and let the unfortunates in on the secret of getting a grip. No secret really, just a little knowledge that comes with experience... 'Smash your heels down hard as you march', was the advice we bawled and promptly marched them up and down the road to put it into practice. Mustering what little reserve of courage they could find they stepped-out boldly putting best foot forward until sooner rather than later they began to get the hang of it. Much to their surprise and chuffed with success they found that our remedy worked... some of the time anyway!

Happy days. Get Some In!

Tony Northan, 17th June 2011